Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum gives broad permission for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass. The motu proprio also permits use of preconciliar liturgical rites for all the sacraments, with the exception of ordination. It lays the groundwork for the creation of two liturgical establishments within the Latin-rite Catholic Church—one worshiping according to rites mandated by the Council of Trent, the other according to rites mandated by the Second Vatican Council.

It was not the intention of Vatican II, or of the popes who implemented it, to create a situation in which two forms of the Roman rite would exist side by side. The liturgical reform of the council was intended as a true reform, addressing genuine problems of the old liturgy for the good of the church as a whole. Now, with the stroke of a pen, Pope Benedict has made that reform optional. Individual priests may use the preconciliar rites at will, and groups of the faithful who ask for celebrations according to the preconciliar norms may not be refused them.

No one familiar with the liturgical views of the present pope will be greatly surprised by his decision. While still a cardinal, Benedict expressed displeasure with the course of liturgical reform since the council, and in various ways he supported a revival of the Tridentine liturgy. It was the support of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that encouraged Pope John Paul II to give the original indult in 1984 permitting use of Tridentine rites, despite the near-unanimous opposition of the world’s bishops. The professed aim of the indult was to reconcile traditionalist Catholics who, under the leadership of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X he founded, were headed for schism. It did not work—the schism occurred anyway. Nevertheless, the indult was broadened in 1988—this time without any consultation of bishops—and a commission was founded to tend to the needs of those who were committed to the Tridentine liturgy.

At least as important for understanding the origins of Summorum pontificum, however, is a different phenomenon that arose at the same time: A small but vocal group of Catholics began to call for a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy for the church across the board. They are not schismatics, like the Lefebvrites, but they are interested in the restoration of Tridentine liturgical forms and the marginalization of the reformed liturgy. They found a champion and supporter in the future Benedict XVI.

The most visible proponent of this agenda was Msgr. Klaus Gamber of the liturgical institute in Regensburg, Germany. He became known outside scholarly circles when he published a popular book in 1984, which appeared in English in 1993 under the title The Reform of the Roman Liturgy. Gamber did not reject the council. He regarded the liturgical movement leading up to the council as a generally positive phenomenon. Nevertheless, he was highly sympathetic to the restorationist cause. Gamber believed the crusade to reestablish the preconciliar liturgy too important to be left to “a small group of fanatics” who reject the council outright. Yet his horror at the reforms that followed the council was hardly any less dramatic than theirs:

Great is the confusion! Who can still see clearly in this darkness? Where in our church are the leaders who can show us the right path? Where are the bishops courageous enough to cut out the cancerous growth of modernist theology that has implanted itself and is festering within the celebration of even the most sacred mysteries before the cancer spreads and causes even greater damage?...We can only hope and pray that the Roman Church will return to Tradition and allow once more that liturgy of the Mass which is well over 1,000 years old.

Gamber also expressed a definite view about the current Mass. He wanted it not to be considered the Roman rite, but merely retained as a rite ad experimentum until it dies out. Ratzinger found these extreme views congenial, and oddly enough, deemed them moderate. He wrote a preface to the French edition of Gamber’s book, calling him “the one scholar who, among the army of pseudo-liturgists, truly represents the liturgical thinking of the center of the church.”

Another partisan of the “reform of the reform,” Alcuin Reid, OSB, of Farnborough, England, published The Organic Development of the Liturgy in 2004. In giving a positive review to Reid’s book, Ratzinger voiced some of his own views on liturgical reform. He opined that scholars and experts were heeded too much after the council, and that although pastors should have had more of a voice, pastoral insights are unreliable. “Because...people’s judgments as to what is pastorally effective are widely divergent,” Ratzinger wrote, “the ‘pastoral’ aspect has become the point at which ‘creativity’ breaks in, destroying the unity of the liturgy.” Once you’ve eliminated scholarship, expertise, and pastoral judgment, what basis remains for constructive liturgical reform? Clearly, the deck is stacked against the acceptance of any reform whatsoever.

In his letter accompanying the motu proprio, Benedict chides those bishops who believe that expanding the use of the Tridentine liturgy will detract from the standing of the Second Vatican Council, of which the reformed liturgy was sign and symbol. Yet surely the bishops’ concerns are justified.

Indeed, the traditionalists Benedict wants to conciliate do not simply reject the Mass of Paul VI—they reject the conciliar theology it embodies. The Society of St. Pius X published a defense of their position in 2001, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform, which showed that their opposition to the liturgical reforms of the council is profoundly theological. They argue, for example, that the idea of the paschal mystery is out of keeping with the true meaning of the Mass. The paschal mystery has been consistently proposed in council documents, papal pronouncements, and all the official teachings of the church since the council as the key to the whole liturgical reform. One would have to look hard to find a concept more universally accepted since the council, yet the traditionalists reject it. In their view, the Mass is only about the expiation of sin. The Resurrection has nothing to do with it. Their glad welcome of the pope’s motu proprio should give every Catholic pause.

In addition to the council’s emphasis on the paschal mystery, other core values of the council are called into question by the pope’s move to reestablish the Tridentine rites. The council emphasized the role of Scripture in the life of the church, and this value was richly reflected in the liturgical reform. The old lectionary had a one-year cycle of readings. Almost all of the Gospel passages were taken from St. Matthew. There were no Old Testament readings on Sunday. The sacraments and many of the weekdays had no readings assigned to them at all. When the council fathers decreed that the Catholic faithful should have richer fare at the table of God’s Word, they were making a pastoral move of immense consequence. The three-year lectionary cycle was an outgrowth of the renaissance in Catholic Scripture scholarship in the mid-twentieth century and repeated papal urgings to dwell on the sacred texts with an avid mind and an open heart. According to the USCCB Web site, the so-called Extraordinary Form of the Missale Romanum (1962) includes 1 percent of the Old Testament and 17 percent of the New Testament, whereas the Ordinary Form (what most Catholics use now) includes 14 percent of the Old Testament, and 71 percent of the New Testament.

Benedict XVI’s motu proprio implies that none of this, in the end, is essential or even very important. Those who celebrate according to Tridentine rites may use the new lectionary or not, as they choose. The biblical-liturgical synthesis of Vatican II is now optional.

Before the council, women were forbidden to serve in liturgical ministries. They were kept outside the sanctuary—a very old taboo perceived by many today as sexist and out of keeping with our sense of the dignity of the baptized. This prohibition was ended after Vatican II. The third directive on the right implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Liturgicae instaurationes, 1970), admitted women to various liturgical ministries which are exercised in the sanctuary—such as that of reader or musician. They now also serve in the sanctuary as extraordinary ministers of Communion, and as altar servers.

They may not do so in the Tridentine rites. Thus, each additional celebration according to Tridentine rites increases the number of occasions when women are kept out of the sanctuary. An outdated and harmful exclusion that was done away with for good reason is being encouraged.

It is hard to credit the pope’s claim that his edict is intended for the benefit of the faithful. How can it be “for the benefit of the faithful” to return to a ritual of baptism in which the parents of infants say nothing? In the spirit of ecumenism, the liturgy that came out of Vatican II eliminated the abjuration of heresy and schism that non-Catholics made before being admitted to Catholic communion. How can we justify reviving such practices today? There was no catechumenate in the Tridentine church, despite a crying need around the world for this liturgical structure of evangelization and formation. How can we deprive adult converts of the catechumenate—which canon law now requires them to have?

The reform of the liturgy was not a mere matter of aesthetic preferences, of “contemporary relevance” versus “timeless mystery,” of Latin versus the vernacular. The reformed liturgy embodies the values of the council in innumerable ways. Given the series of concessions that have already been made to Catholic traditionalists, and the radical views and program of those to whom this pope has given his approval and endorsement in the past, it is difficult to believe that with Summorum pontificum a definitive compromise has been reached and the matter will end there. A more plausible understanding of the present moment is that it marks another step toward a goal that the vast majority of Catholics would not countenance if it were openly acknowledged—namely, the gradual dismantling of the liturgical reform in its entirety.

Could such a plan ever succeed? That remains to be seen. I believe that the Second Vatican Council and its reforms were the work of the Spirit. Yet these reforms were also the work of human hands, and in this respect they are vulnerable. We do ourselves no favors by pretending otherwise.


Read more responses to Summorum pontificum: The Old Rite Returns

Related: Courting Schismatics? by Justus George Lawler
Why I Became Catholic, by John Wilkins

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.